Do Artists Need A Return Policy?

February 1, 2011

A return policy is something every artist should consider. How you handle a customer that wants to return or exchange an artwork can have a lasting impact on your career—especially given the impact of electronic social networks on marketing. Well-handled, a good return policy can turn a one-time-only customer into a repeat customer or a good word-of-mouth advertiser.

Customer service is greatly valued in e-commerce. On eBay and Etsy, you can quite easily get a sense of the customer service level of the vendors. You get it from customers who post comments about their service experience on vendor storefronts. The availability of this kind of consumer information is particularly important on the Internet because we cannot meet the vendor in person and feel at greater risk buying from a stranger.

When customers shop, they want to have confidence in the wisdom of their decision. All you say and do for your customers, plus the language that you use, should instill confidence—that is what a customer-conscious return policy does. We can sometimes be glib about what we say or do with customers, inadvertently triggering “red flags” for potential buyers of our work.

Good customer service is best measured by your post-sale behavior. Do you follow-up with purchasers to cement the relationship or contact “almost customers” with a “gift” (or minor product or valuable non-sales information) to move them to a valuable relationship with you? It is when there is a problem that your customer service skills are tested.

The point of my questions is to get you to consider your attitudes to customer service and, in particular, to a return policy. I want to impress upon you that customer-conscious thinking can have a powerful impact on your practice. Few artists I know have considered what they would do if faced with a returned artwork; some artists I know encourage them. What should your return policy be? How are you with post-sales customer service?

I think it is wise for you to have a return policy of your own design—a policy that is adaptive to the divergent products of your practice. Once articulated, I further believe in discreet use of your policy for two important reasons. Having one suggests to your customers that you are a moral person and, therefore, worthy of their support. And by discreetly letting all your potential customers know that you have a return policy, it lessens the risk of their purchase and increases the chances of you making a sale. And I’d suggest you have a policy that is not based on a “money-back” principle; instead, I’d provide a credit against another purchase of your work.

So how do you discreetly advertise a return policy? The best way I know of is to have it printed on some business cards or to provide access to it on the homepage of your website or blog. Then, when you are doing business, you can selectively and easily articulate a simple policy verbally, giving the card as welcome proof of your word.

When do you bring up the subject of returns with customers? When someone is considering your work who is:
1. Unaccompanied by their partner (and who might have
to negotiate your work into their environment).
2. A first-time buyer of art or of your work.
3. Conflicted—close to a sale but hesitant.
4. Buying an expensive piece.
5. Buying a gift.

To know if a potential customer is one who should be told about your return policy means engaging with them. “Indirect engagement” (where the objective is to establish a relationship, not make a sale) should be your goal. Offering to help, using a phrase that is sincere, is a good opening. If you focus on the customer and their needs, you will get to know your customers; information about your return policy should be reserved for only your good customers and worthy potential customers.

With artwork, I would limit returns to one month after the sale, or something like that. There are, however, artists reinventing the return policy to their advantage, including using an unlimited return policy. I have interviewed an artist who allows all his customers an unlimited return on their purchases provided the work returned is in pristine condition. And he advertises this policy.

His return policy recognizes that tastes change, and so, sometimes, do partners. He recognizes that sometimes, like a record played too often, a valued visual stimulus may lose its appeal. Hence his open return policy that, he is certain, has contributed to the success of his practice. How does he know it is working? Because, he says, over 87% of his first-time customers return for additional purchases (and not to make an exchange).

In the minds and hands of creative people, good return policies serve the customer and the artist equally. Simple or complex, traditional or creative, a return policy should be part of your creative practice.

Chris Tyrell is an arts writer and educator. His opinion piece has appeared in our newsletter since it began in 1986.

In his new Art Marketing Blog, Chris shares his insights on professional artist development, exploring avenues of promotion for Canadian visual artists. To learn more, visit: